Ethology and veterinary practice: Human emotions and animal behavior
Thursday, January 05, 2017
Changes in animal behavior often trigger human awareness of existing or impending animal medical problems. However, how a specific person responds to these behaviors depends on the quality of the bond between that person and the animal.
As people become more remote from nature, they create more emotion-based, symbolic bonds rather than ethology-based bonds with their animals. Meanwhile, their veterinary education may cause clinicians to see those same animal behaviors strictly as symptoms of existing or impending problems with little attention giving to how these two different orientations may complicate the medical or behavioral healing process.
When such complications do occur, practitioners may find themselves expressing a familiar lament: "I love working with the animals. It's the people who drive me crazy!"
This brief will explore two animal behavior-related human emotional orientations that pose challenges for practitioners because of their potential to wreak havoc with animal health and behavior and the quality of clinician-client relationship.
Negative emotional charges applied to the animal
A relatively commonly example of this phenomenon also has ramifications for animal health.
Consider the case of Baby Kitty who urinates on the pastel bathroom rug. How his owner responds to him and the how dedicated that person will be to the resolution of the problem may boil down to one factor — the presence or absence of visible blood in the urine.
When they see blood in their pets' urine, most clients become concerned and seek veterinary help for their animals. Most also will perceive their animals as victims of some infection or trauma. In my experience, it's extremely rare for people to punish their pets for not using the litter box under these circumstances.
However, some people may feel guilty for some reason — e.g., because they've been gone a lot — and offer the animal special foods or treats to comfort their animals as well as themselves. If these coincidentally cause the animal digestive distress, this may complicate the diagnosis.
Those few who do give into anger often feel remorse after the fact and want to do more to help the animal to atone for this. Additionally, most people whose animals have bloody urine don't expect instant cures.
If no evidence of blood in the urine exists though — and especially if the animal has peed on something that the owner values — client perception may be quite different. Instead of perceiving Baby Kitty as a victim, he now becomes a villain hellbent on destroying the owner's precious belongings.
When this occurs, people may describe the animal as stupid, spiteful, mean, jealous of the new partner/baby/pet, psycho or worse. Such negative emotion-based human-animal bonds create three problems for practitioners.
1. These clients may put off seeking veterinary care because their emotions and the resulting bond it creates with the animal blind them to the possibility that the animal may have a legitimate medical or behavioral problem.
2. If they do seek help, their commitment to helping the animal may be minimal if the veterinarian doesn't provide them with concrete information that replaces their negative emotional interpretation with a medically and ethologically sound one.
3. Because of the strong negative emotional charge these clients place on their animals' behavior/symptoms, practitioners must strive to maintain professional neutrality when interacting with these people. Implying or directly stating that Baby Kitty's owner's failure to address the cat's real problem in a timely fashion was inhumane or stupid won't help the animal or ensure owner compliance.
Situations in which people assign negative emotions to animal behavior or the animal displaying it possess the potential to create a revolving door of medical, behavioral and bond problems. Theoretically, the most energy-efficient approach involves addressing all three components from the beginning.
However, for practitioners used to thinking in terms of medical or behavioral or bond problems, this might take a while to get used to. In the meantime, describing what the behavior means in unemotional ethological terms can help diffuse the negative human emotion associated with these cases.
Positive emotions owners experience when they tolerate problem behavior
Although a relatively rare phenomenon when I entered practice decades ago, it has become more common with the rise of the emotion-based rescue mentality.
My earliest memorable encounter with this orientation occurred when a woman waylaid me after a presentation to talk about her dog. Unlike others who did this, she didn't seek advice about how to resolve her dog's behavioral problem. She wanted to brag about the extent to which she went to tolerate the animal's chronic, excessive marking behavior.
She also wanted me agree that her willingness to confine him to a large room in her small house proved her great love for him. To further prove her love, she described in detail she how removed all furnishings from the room and covered its floor, walls, windows and doors with heavy plastic so he could mark "as much as he wanted."
In her own anthropocentric way, the woman obsessed about her dog's behavior. Had the term "helicoptering" existed back then, she would have rated über-helicoptering status.
But for all the hovering she did, this wasn't motivated by a desire to ensure her dog's well-being. She needed the dog to lift his leg multiple times; she needed to sacrifice a room in her home, cover it in plastic and to clean up all that urine daily to support her view of herself as a superior human being.
Consequently, she had no interest in determining the cause of the problem, let alone resolving it.
Back then I dubbed this owner orientation the St. Francis Syndrome (SFS) because these people's interactions with their animals were governed by the belief that anyone can have a healthy, well-behaved pet, but it takes a real saint to put up with one with problems.
With the rise of the rescue mentality, the SFS most commonly takes the form of rescuitis today. Those who pay attention to social media responses to animal abuse reports or are familiar with the shelter scene recognize the Bermuda triangle of personality traits that characterize this human orientation: little knowledge of ethology, gravitation toward the most traumatized animals and a sincere, if naïve, belief that their love will conquer all.
When these people talk about their animals, they focus on the animal's traumatic history. If no reliable history exists — as in the case of some news stories or transport animals — they create one.
Submissive displays normal under the circumstances are described as evidence of abuse. Instead of perceiving the dog's escalating aggressive displays in the context of the animal's genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors that their love alone won't conquer, they snuggle and cuddle the animal more.
Some even continue doing this even after the dog has made it quite clear he's playing by dog rules by grabbing human faces with his teeth the same way he would that of an insubordinate dog. Because humans lack the protective muzzle conformation of most canines, some of these people don't fare so well when this happens.
Unlike those who project negative emotions on animals displaying behaviors that the owner perceives as evidence of the animal's despicable nature, these clients truly love their animals. Some even may rank as good clients in terms of the amount of income they generate for the practice.
However, this benefit may be offset by the awareness that — no matter what the veterinarian says — nothing will change until something neutralizes the positive emotional charge these clients attach to their tolerance of their animal's behavior and enables them to see the animal's behavior more objectively.
Until this happens, the probability of the owner summoning the commitment to effectively treat the problem behavior and/or any medical problems related to those displays remains low. In the meantime, practitioners owe it to themselves and their other clients not to give into their own negative emotions regarding these sometimes-difficult cases.
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